Growing up means…

I consider the Rites of Passage workshop not only the centerpiece of my Coming of Age program but my entire Minds on Fire project because, intellectually, it was where I started when I first confronted the issue of how we get young people today to think about becoming adults. My husband, who mentors a teenager, first put the question to me because he said that his mentoring group was struggling with that very issue. When it comes to preparing youth in foster care for adulthood (at which point they “age out” of the system), most agencies have them attend workshops on financial literacy and sex ed, then hand them a metro card and call it a day. I have since met some people who are positively alarmed by this shoddy process and are working to equip teenagers with real life skills and a strong support network as they go out into the world. This is work I really admire and I am joining their efforts.

I come at the problem from a different angle. Aside from being able to shoulder certain responsibilities, to me what is fundamental to growing up is gradually being able to make sense of the world. I clearly remember what it was like being a child and generally ignorant and confused about why so many things were the way they were. As children we rely on the adults around us to interpret situations for us, and while our own faculties are dull we make do with their explanations. My freshman year of college was a real turning point for me. I came to the end of that school year feeling as if the scales had fallen off my eyes and I was suddenly equipped with the basic skills I needed to organize knowledge and tackle problems in the humanities and social sciences. I was armed with active reading skills and was newly media literate—even billboards couldn’t hide their secret subtexts from me. Everything looked completely different because I felt that I was beginning to establish an adult relationship with what was around me—adult in the sense that the world was no longer a mystery, but a set of texts to be interpreted, concepts to be deconstructed, and problems to be tackled. It was empowering.

Since finishing grad school I’ve realized that there is another aspect of adulthood that is generally overlooked. I refer to the ability first to look inward to assess your strengths and passions, and then to turn the gaze outward onto the world to find or define a place where who you are or who you want to be will be able to shine by a talent shared, a service rendered, or a problem solved. Perhaps this isn’t widely recognized as a fundamental aspect of adulthood, but I will stand my ground and maintain that it should be, because to argue otherwise strikes me as morally flawed.

The foster care system largely operates as if adulthood were simply the ability to show up where you need to be and to pay your bills. The central message seems to be: go to school so you can get a job; get a job so you can make ends meet. In short, we are setting up our youth for subsistence living, but I think we can (and should) do so much better. This is the basis for the mission of Minds on Fire.

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